Celebrating Our Eco-Heroes

When Vanity Fair announced its special "green issue," focusing on the environment and those who fight on its behalf, it seemed a watershed moment, a sign that talk of global warming has officially broken into the mainstream. With ample scientific evidence that clearly shows the negative impact human beings are having on the planet, it's long past time we started asking how we can stop it, rather than naively pondering whether it's going on at all. This Earth Day, we can all celebrate this shift in focus -- and the people who have fueled it.

But the magazine focused almost exclusively on the rich and powerful figureheads of the enviro movement, leaders like Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Julia Roberts. In doing so, Vanity Fair missed the very people who offer the most hope in solving the problems we're facing: the grassroots activists and leaders that push environmentalism ever forward.

When we asked readers to nominate their grassroots eco-heroes, we received hundreds of names. It's a testament to the number of people, often uncelebrated, who continue to fight for our planet. It is one thing to champion a cause, another to live it. And while Julia Roberts and George Clooney look great in green on the Vanity Fair cover, these nine eco-heroes are responsible for making our entire planet look better and greener.

Rebecca Aldworth, Humane Society


aldworth_rebecca
Rebecca Aldworth (Credit: HSUS/Brian Skerry)
Rebecca Aldworth is director of Canadian Wildlife Issues for the Humane Society of the United States. For the past ten years, she has campaigned to stop the commercial seal hunt in Canada. Every year, she serves as a witness to the hunt, bringing journalists, parliamentarians and scientists to observe the savage competition, which routinely involves skinning the animals alive. Aldworth's tireless efforts to bring the slaughter of seals into the public eye have paid off. This year, Greenland stopped its trade in Canadian sealskins -- no small feat considering that over the past two years it has been the recipient of some 90,000 skins. Aldworth is devoted to finding constructive solutions to end sealing by working to create compensation programs to dissuade fishermen from the practice. In addition to Greenland, Mexico, Belgium, Croatia and Luxembourg have all recently taken steps to ban their trade in seal products.

These steps are critical to ending a practice that many aren't even aware is still going on. As Aldworth explained, back in the 1970s and 80s when this campaign was at its height globally, the seals became the symbol of the animal protection and environmental movements. In the 1980s, when the EU banned the import of newborn seal skins, the victory "turned us from protesters into the politically powerful. We changed from a movement that stood in the streets and didn't really effect policy to one that convinced governments around the world to take action." But in the 1990s, Canada's federal government subsidized the return of the hunt. Despite the setback, Aldworth is optimistic about the future, noting that she believes this may be the last year we have to see the slaughter of baby seals in Canada. "This is a victory we simply have to win," she notes, "and I think we will win it."

Janine Blaeloch, Western Lands Project
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
On paper, a land trade where the government takes in 33,000 acres for public use in exchange for just 7,200 acres of national forest seems like a win-win, right? Not if the company that's offering up the land is paper giant Weyerhauser. According to Janine Blaeloch, the founder and director of the Western Lands Project, the deal would have given up thousands of acres of native forests in exchange for "rocks and stumps." This proposed deal spurred the creation of the Western Lands Project, a Seattle-based nonprofit whose aim is simple: to keep public lands public.

Blaeloch says that, in addition to preserving public lands by keeping them out of the hands of developers and companies like Weyerhauser, the WLP's work helps to raise public awareness of the kind of backroom deals that happen between the federal government and corporations. It's the kind of work that's all the more important now, when the federal officials who are responsible for safeguarding public lands have recently worked for the same industries they're supposed to be supervising.

In the ten years since Western Lands took on Weyerhauser -- and won a major victory in 1999, preventing the transfer -- Blaeloch says she's been consistently impressed at just how much the public cares about the land. "All these public lands are something the U.S. has that no one else in the world has. It's also the one elemental thing that we all share, that we all have in common." And that's something everyone agrees is worth fighting for.

Vivian Chang, Asian Pacific Environmental Network
Vivian Chang
Vivian Chang
As executive director of Oakland, Calif.'s Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Vivian Chang wears many hats. As it notes on its website, APEN believes "the environment includes everything around us: where we live, work and play."

Chang -- like APEN itself -- works on grassroots levels to build leadership and solidarity within underprivileged communities, and direct organizing is where her group's heart lies. APEN's much-respected Bay Area projects include the five-year-old Laotian Organizing Project (LOP) in Richmond, which is also home to the 11-year-old Asian Youth Advocates program for young women (focusing on environmental and reproductive health and justice, community activism and cultural identity); and the four-year-old Power in Asians Organizing (PAO) which works with a pan-Asian immigrant community in Oakland.

As Chang and APEN's development director, Manami Kano, concisely summarized in a piece for Grist Magazine, "We all know things are terribly wrong, that the frameworks of liberalism and environmentalism have failed, and that no social movement -- environmental, labor, racial justice, women, LGBT -- is being spared from the right's consolidation of power."

Sadly, yes -- AlterNet knows "things are terribly wrong." This is what makes Chang, and her work with APEN, all the more inspiring -- for the brave, important work she has dedicated her life to.

Theo Colburn, Our Stolen Future
Theo Colborn
Theo Colborn
Genital malformations. Declining sperm counts. Breasts on toddlers. According to Theo Colborn, these increasingly common phenomenons are our fault. Dr. Colborn is the pioneer-scientist on studies supporting the "Endocrine Disruptor Hypothesis," a theory that synthetic chemicals, created and released into the environment by humans, are mimicking hormones in our bodies and essentially "neutering the population."

Concern for water quality drove Colborn back to college at the age of 51. She received a doctorate in zoology at the age of 58 and went on to co-author Our Stolen Future. The book, a synthesis of her findings supporting the Endocrine Disruptor Hypothesis, created quite a stir in the scientific community, and there were efforts to censor the studies featured in it. It was precisely this kind of censorship that encouraged her to keep pushing to get the truth out. She believes the only way to continue working toward a more environmentally sustainable future is for people with courage to continue pushing independent media coverage and educating the public.

These days, Colborn can be found in Colorado fundraising for her nonprofit organization The Endocrine Disruptor Exchange (TEDX) and driving around the mountains in her Prius looking for new spots to go birding.

Juliet Ellis, Urban Habitat
Juliet Ellis
Juliet Ellis
If environmentalists are ever going to make progress, environmental and social advocates must cooperate with government officials and business leaders to change the way our society operates. Juliet Ellis, the executive director of Urban Habitat, an Oakland based nonprofit is working to do just that. Ellis and her associates at Urban Habitat approach the complex mission of creating an environmentally just society through policy and advocacy, research and education, and by building multi-interest coalitions to hold politicians and businesses responsible for their actions. So far, their work has "helped to broaden and frame the agenda on toxic pollution, transportation, tax and fiscal reform, and the nexus between inner-city disinvestments and urban sprawl."

Ellis earned her M.B.A. with an emphasis in environmental and urban studies from San Francisco State University. Before becoming the director of Urban Habitat, she worked as a program officer for Neighborhood and Community Development at the San Francisco Foundation. She currently serves on the board and steering committee of the Bay Area Transportation and Land Use Coalition, the Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Communities, the Capital Community Investment Initiative, Girls After School Academy, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the Partnership for Working Families.

Cynthia Pryor, Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve
Cynthia Pryor
Cynthia Pryor
In her work as executive director of the tiny 501(c)3 Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, Cynthia Pryor of Big Bay, Mich., works -- tirelessly and solo -- to protect the pristine wilderness, streams and ground water in Michigan's largely unpowered, unpaved Yellow Dog Plains.

Pryor founded YDWP in 1995, and as its only employee, she's had her work cut out for her. Things began heating up in 2002, when mining company Kennecott Mineral Explorations discovered a small mineral deposit of nickel and copper on the plains. The company wanted to develop harmful underground sulfide mining there, potentially damaging both the Salmon-Trout River (which provides spawning and nursery ground for a rare native breed of Michigan trout) and the Yellow Dog River, which supports many rare species from the moose and the wolf to the peregrine falcon.

"Since Kennecott announced its plans, we've been aggressively opposing sulfide mining in Michigan. We've developed a statute, rules, and have been getting the whole community involved. It's just not good for the town -- such a water-rich place -- and it's not good for Michigan," Pryor tells AlterNet.

And her small Big Bay community (population: 250) tends to agree. Pryor has recruited a "broad coalition of folks opposed to sulfide mining," and most locals have aligned with her to fight the proposed mining.

"Kennecott has not been successful yet," Pryor notes, with a tinge of disdain for the "arrogance" displayed by this large corporation (Kennecott is part of the second-largest mining company in the world). "They thought they could come in and do whatever they wanted," she says. "They thought they would just come to our little remote location, and that no one was going to oppose it."

But, clearly, with eco-warriors like Pryor in their midst, Kennecott was dead wrong when it decided to mess with Yellow Dog.

Michael Reynolds, Earthship Biotechture
Michael Reynolds
Michael Reynolds (Credit: Cer!se.)
Back in the '70s, Michael Reynolds took watching the news to a new level. Having seen a report on the growing number of beer cans thrown over streets and highways immediately after watching a report on a growing shortage of timber, Reynolds began incorporating beer cans in the building materials he used in home construction. Over the next 30 years, Reynolds synthesized this common sense approach, using unconventional materials and sustainable technologies, to create his company -- Earthship Biotecture. Using solar and thermal heating and cooling, wind electricity, water harvesting, and contained sewage treatment, Reynolds has developed off-the-grid housing that is both environmentally and economically viable.

Based in New Mexico, the growing interest in Biotecture has led to the creation of three communities in Taos. Reynolds' vision, however, is distinctly global. Reynolds leads disaster relief crews, focusing on providing immediate housing that can be efficiently integrated into long-term sustainable housing, with the underlying focus on transferring the knowledge to local groups and citizens. It's an ambitious goal, but it has already seen successes in such varied places as India, Spain, Bolivia, Honduras and Belgium. Reynolds has dedicated his life to his ideals, emphasizing the simplicity and necessity of sustainable living. As his website states,
The condition of our planet tells us we must now begin to take responsibility for what happens beyond the reach of our fingertips. There is no mystery involved in Earthship electricity. There is no unknown source of water. There is no magical black hole that sucks up all our sewage. Instead, we work in harmony with the earth to deal with these issues -- taking what it has to give us directly and giving back what it wants to receive. With this harmony ringing in our minds we evolve the Earthship Systems.
Neil Turner, Citizens Advocating Responsible Development
Neil Turner
Neil Turner
As president of Citizens Advocating Responsible Development, Neil Turner fought the construction of a proposed 520-megawatt gas-fired electric power plant in the Glenville Industrial Park (GEP) near Schenectady, N.Y., starting in 1999. With wealthy, powerful backers like General Electric and Duke energy, and bought-off, rubber-stamping politicians ushering its progress, the project appeared a done deal. But after constant pressure from Turner and a careful tactical approach, years of fighting paid off.

The original project plans by plant developers had the GEP buying water from the city of Schenectady and using the nearby village of Scotia's sewer system for waste water disposal. With pressure from Turner, Schenectady's City Council eventually opted against selling the GEP water, and the town government of Scotia voted to deny use of the sewer system. Both Duke Energy and General Electric eventually pulled out of the project, putting the developer's dreams on ice. By the end of 2003, the power park was doomed, and the project's offices were closed.

When he was told that AlterNet readers had voted him as an environmental hero, Turner responded, "I almost hate to classify this myself as environmentalist. What it takes is persistence. When we embarked on the campaign to stop the power plant in Scotia, everyone told us, 'Oh it's a done deal.' But we kept going for five years and pushed them back. We stopped the power plant on technicalities, cutting off their source of water and stopping their sewage. This wasn't heroics; this was persistence."

Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart
Rosalie Bertell
Rosalie Bertell
In the mid-1980s, two catastrophes rocked the world in quick succession: the 1984 Union Carbide explosion in Bhopal, India, which killed more than 15,000 people and sickened as many as 600,000; and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown that sickened and killed thousands, and graphically revealed the dangers of nuclear power. Both of these disasters continue to wreak havoc on people in the affected areas.

Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a mathematician, a nun in the order of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, and renowned human rights activist, helped raise awareness of not only the immediate destruction caused by these tragedies, but their ongoing effects. To this day, thousands of people in Russia and India are suffering from their exposure to these accidents.

But this was neither the beginning nor the end of Bertell's work. She has devoted her life to documenting and fighting the threats posed to human health and the planet by nuclear power, rampant militarism and unchecked corporate pollution. Bertell is an outspoken opponent to the use of depleted uranium and successfully fought for the first moratorium on a nuclear power plant in upstate New York.

Bertell founded the International Institute of Concern for Public Health in 1984 and has authored several books about the threats to the planet, most recently 2001's Planet Earth: The Newest Weapon of War. But as a 2005 biography of Bertell puts it, she is a scientist, eco-feminist and visionary. A 1998 profile in the Toronto Star says Bertell "believes that if women had more decision-making power, the world would be a better place. If all women were like her, that seems a safe bet.

Diane Wilson, Code Pink
Diane Wilson
Diane Wilson
Diane Wilson is a fourth-generation shrimper from the Texas Gulf Coast. After reading a newspaper article in 1989 listing her native Calhoun County as the biggest polluter in the country, she decided to do something about it. Despite facing contempt from many of her neighbors and threats from polluting interests, Wilson forced the toxic practices of companies like Formosa Plastics into the public spotlight by going on a hunger strike and constant campaigning toward her local legislature. Last April, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fined Formosa $150,000 for violations of air pollution laws, including releases of toxic chemicals like vinyl chloride.

Sixteen years of hard campaigning for public health and the environment from her hometown, Seadrift, Texas, has netted Wilson a pile of awards, including: National Fisherman Magazine Award, Mother Jones 'Hell Raiser of the Month, Louis Gibbs' Environmental Lifetime Award, Louisiana Environmental Action (LEAN) Environmental Award.

Wilson is a co-founder of Code Pink and continues to lead the fight for social justice. Wilson recently wrote a book about her encounters with corporate polluters and Texas Politicos, "An Unreasonable Woman." Upon being told that AlterNet readers had voted for her as an environmental hero, Wilson responded, "I can't believe it. Pretty amazing. I don't quite know what to say. AlterNet is always a place where I get my news -- I'm honored."

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